Early Trinity Site History
The Jornada del Muerto is close to the Trinity Site. Spanish colonists called the road the “Journey of the Dead Man” because of the threat of death by starvation, thirst, or attack by the Apache tribes in the area. Jim Eckles, who worked at the White Sands Missile Range for over 30 years, provides a brief overview of the history of the area.
Narrator: Jim Eckles worked at the White Sands Missile Range for 30 years, and along the way became an expert on every aspect of its history. Beginning in the early 16th century, Spanish explorers traveled along the Jornada del Muerto not far from Trinity site. Eckles explains why the route was called the “journey of the dead man.”
Jim Eckles: This was all part of the Spanish empire for centuries. People don’t realize that the Spaniards were here longer than the United States has been a country. Anyway, they came out of Mexico and came up the Rio Grande at El Paso and established the capital at Santa Fe. The road they built along the Rio Grande was called the Camino Real. North of what’s now Las Cruces, the river takes a lot of bends. There are some canyons in it and stuff. It makes it hard going if you are trying to pull carts and stuff to Santa Fe. But if you went out to the east between the San Andreas Mountains and the river, that’s just kind of flat plains. The going is pretty quick.
The only problem with that is, there is no water there, or very little. Plus the Apache hang out in the mountains around there. And so, the Spaniards built their road on those plains, and they got attacked a lot. A lot of them died of thirst or starvation. There were a lot of deaths on the road. They nicknamed the road, “The journey or road of death” from Las Cruces basically up to about Socorro.
Journalists and authors for decades couldn’t help making that symbolic jump from Trinity site, where the atomic bomb was born, to “The journey of death” to the west. They wanted to smash those two things together and make some kind of symbolism.
The Schmidt/McDonald Ranch House was the site where Manhattan Project scientists assembled the active components of the “Gadget” nuclear device for the world’s first nuclear test.
Narrator: The McDonald Ranch House is a popular attraction for Trinity Site visitors. Jim Eckles describes the history of the families who lived and ranched here from 1912 to 1942.
Jim Eckles: There are actually two McDonald ranch houses. The one close to ground zero, about two miles from ground zero, belonged to George. It was actually built in 1913 by the Schmidt family. Franz Schmidt was a German immigrant, married a gal from Texas. They came into the area below the Oscura Mountains and homesteaded there, and had a ranch where they raised cows and sheep. It was quite a big operation.
Their house burned down in 1912. So they lived in the barn, and had this new house built in 1913. It’s four rooms. It’s adobe. It’s a very nice structure with oak floors and all that. The Schmidt family, though, left in 1920. I think the McDonalds bought it then.
George McDonald was living there, then, when the Alamogordo Bombing Range was formed in 1942, forcing them out.
It was a tough life. It’s important because of the work done there for the Manhattan Project. But it’s also a really cool old ranch house that dates back to the pre-statehood time, or right at statehood, for New Mexico.